#atozblogchallenge L is for Location


by Lillian Csernica on April 13, 2019

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One of the key ideas in retail success is “Location, location, location.” Put your business in the right place, where the right customer base will find you, and you stand a much better chance of making a profit.

When writing stories, your setting is a vital element. I see a lot of stories with complex worldbuilding, but the setting is more like stage scenery or a rack of props. Where you locate your story, or which locations appear in your story, can be just as powerful a story element as plot or character.

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Consider some famous settings:

Mars — The Martian

A train — Murder on the Orient Express, Strangers on a Train

A bus — Speed

A deserted islandRobinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies

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These settings have crucial aspects in common:

  • The physical location is very limiting, requiring quick thinking and immediate adaptation.
  • The main character is trapped in that setting. There is no easy way out.
  • The stakes are life or death.

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When I write historical fiction, location encompasses not just the physical setting but the time period as well:

Fallen Idol starts out in a mall food court, an ordinary, modern, nonthreatening setting. The main character, a photographer, notices a girl with elaborate and dramatic makeup. The rest of her skin is completely covered up by layers of clothing. The photographer follows this girl to a creepy abandoned factory, full of strange foreign folk art, where the rest of the story, rooted in a famous historical conflict, takes place.

Saving Grace is set in a chateau on a pilgrimage route in 14th Century France. The main character fled Russia during the Tatar invasion. She is a vampire. That makes daily living hard enough. She is also a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. At this time most of the Western world was controlled by the Pope of Rome. That puts my heroine in constant danger of arrest as a heretic and schismatic. That meant being burned at the stake.

The Kyoto Steampunk stories take place in Kyoto 1880. Dropping a Victorian physician into an Oriental environment where he can’t speak the language and knows nothing about the social protocol makes every problem I give him twice as difficult.

Make the most of your fictional location. It can make a huge difference!

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Filed under #atozchallenge, Blog challenges, classics, fantasy, Fiction, historical fiction, history, Horror, publication, research, science fiction, steampunk, travel, Writing

#atozchallenge K is for Kids


by Lillian Csernica on April 12, 2019
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by Lillian Csernica on April 12, 2019

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People told me that when I had kids, my life would never be the same.

Those people had no idea how right they were.

My son Michael was born at 23 weeks, weighing 770 grams. That’s one pound, eleven ounces. He was the size of a kitten lying across my palms. This was back in 1996. At that time the age of viability was 24 weeks, because only then would the lungs function. During every single day of the following three and a half months Michael spent in the hospital, we watched and waited to see if our baby would live or die.

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Two and a half years later, John arrived. He went full term, a hefty eight pounds, ten ounces. During delivery, John refused to breathe. By then the hospital staff knew our family rather well, so the head of neonatology was on hand to jump start John and make sure he started life in good form. John had to spend the first week of his life in the NICU, which drove me crazy because I wanted my baby. Then, as John missed verbal milestones and showed other unusual behavior, we learned he has Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

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Now people tell me I should write about my experiences with both of my sons. I should write about battles with insurance, battles with the school district, battles with the boys themselves. I should write about all the doctors and nurses and teachers and aides I’ve worked with through two decades. I should write about what I’ve learned and what I wish I’d known.

It’s not easy to write about difficult events when you’re still in the process of living through them. Now that my boys are legal adults, they face a sharp decline in services, lack of day programs, and the ongoing insurance battles. Michael is still in just as much danger from every medical crisis. John is still learning how to handle some of his symptoms. I am their mother, their legal guardian, and their primary advocate.

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The time is coming when I will write more nonfiction. Right now, I write escapist literature because that’s what I need to write. I don’t travel as much as I’d like to because I simply can’t. In order to hang on to my dented sanity, I run away from home inside my head.

 

 

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#atozchallenge J is for Jousting


by Lillian Csernica on April 11, 2019

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I worked at the first Medieval Times dinner theater in the United States. It was in Buena Park, which is famous as the home of some Hollywood-based companies. The big draw of Medieval Times is having your dinner while watching two knights on horseback engage in a jousting match with real lances.

I managed a crafts booth at the Agoura Renaissance Faire for a jeweler. My boss managed to get a spot in the Gift Shop, which was out in the small courtyard ringed by the stables. Yes, my shop was in a converted horse stall.

Oh, the stories I could tell about what went on while I worked there. The Head of Security was a fascinating fellow with a military background. Each of the knights had tales to tell. The owner was a gentleman from Spain. I loved this place for the same reason I love international airports. You just never knew who might show up from one night to the next. We had a lot of celebrities come to see the show, actors and sports stars and other Big Names.

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Working at Medieval Times did cause me cognitive dissonance as a writer. The production designer must have done some reading on what an actual joust looked like in terms of arena design, how the horses were caparisoned, and what the armor looked like, along with the lances. Other than that, historical accuracy went out the window. It was all down to whatever looked good and sold souvenirs.

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This is an occupational hazard when you write historical novels. I strive for historical accuracy, I really do. There have been times when somebody in an editorial position has pointed out to me that I occasionally get carried away with realism at the expense of story. The first time I wrote a medieval novel, that involved six different languages. Why? I had everybody speaking the language he or she would have spoken at that time:

My agent told me I’d better stick to French, Spanish, and English.

If you’d like to get a look at the jousting match, there’s one episode of Cake Boss where Buddy takes his family to Medieval Times. He made a cake for a special occasion being celebrated during the tournament, and the cake alone is impressive.

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I is for Instinct


by Lillian Csernica on April 10, 2019

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Today let’s talk about our creative instincts.

A lot of the creative process takes place on the intuitive level. I sit there in the creative trance, groping for the right word, waiting for my mind to zoom through all the possibilities until the word that feels right arrives. That one I grab and write down. There are times when I have to go look something up, especially if I want the foreign language equivalent of that right word.

Sometimes we come to a fork in the road. Which project do I pursue now? There are several business factors that will influence that decision such as contractual obligations, marketing, and agent advice. Many times it will all boil down to that intuitive push.

I once stood at that creative crossroads, torn between a medieval romance and a contemporary romantic suspense. I chose the latter, which prompted me to track down a martial arts star purely for the purpose of finding out where to get some of his promotional photos. (I like to work from photos of real people who resemble my heroes and heroines.) That led to a phone conversation that resulted in two screenplays.

It’s essential to feed the mind a strong and varied diet. If you’re going to have a compost heap in your imagination, you have to build it up, aerate it, turn it over, and let the natural processes achieve the decomposition. Only then will you get the transformed substance that will help you grow those prize roses or melons.

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My latest short story release is The Badger Epidemic in Next Stop on the #13. The key elements in the story are badgers, cholera, and steam trains. What could badgers and cholera have in common that could possibly bring them together in the context of Japan’s Industrial Revolution? Steam trains and telegraph lines.

Because I read so much, because I feed my mind so much history and folklore and strange news items, all of those ideas came together in a single short story.
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#atozchallenge H is for Haste


by Lillian Csernica on April 9, 2017

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In the UK they have a saying. “More haste, less speed.” Sounds paradoxical, right? The meaning is simple. The faster you rush through a task, the better the chances of making mistakes. You will then have to go back and correct the mistakes, slowing down your overall progress.

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Way back at the beginning of my efforts to write stories for publication, I was so excited I would blaze through my drafts. I really didn’t have a solid grasp of proper story structure, and it showed. Oh boy, how it showed. I was also impatient to fire those stories off in the mail, hoping for my first acceptance letter. What I got was a lot of form rejection letters.

Don’t be in such a hurry. Take the time to learn your craft.

Here comes another paradox: Go ahead and power through that first draft. Don’t think too hard, don’t worry too much. Just get the story down on paper. The creative rush that makes you want to write a story is one of the best parts of this business.

Now that you have something written down, you’ve got something that can be pondered, expanded, rewritten, and cut back.

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Back in the beginning of my career, I wanted to dive right into writing a novel. I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to build a plot by reading how-to manuals and piecing together my ideas. What I quickly learned was how big and how daunting the work of writing a novel really is. It takes a lot longer than people realize, even when you know what you’re doing.

Fortunately, I made a good decision and let all the research I’d done implode into a short story. That story became Fallen Idol, which I sold to William Raley at After Hours Magazine. That story was later accepted by Karl Edward Wagner for The Year’s Best Horror Stories XXI.

You want to be a writer? Write. You want to be a published writer? Learn how to tell a story. Respect the art you want to create. Respect the craft that has been practiced, explored, and improved upon by great minds for centuries.

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#atozblogchallenge G is for Ghost


by Lillian Csernica on April 8, 2019

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I love a good ghost story. I collect anthologies that include authors from the turn of the 20th Century. E.F. Benson. F. Marion Crawford. J.H. Riddell. Best of all, A.M. Burrage.

People have asked me if I believe in ghosts. I believe that people believe in ghosts. Therein lies the key to much of my writing.

It’s what people believe about the supernatural that fascinates me. The beliefs that give rise to folklore, that cause people to create teaching stories and urban legends and some kind of narrative that explains some bizarre event. This kind of thinking makes it easier to bear the strain of living in an unpredictable universe.

Have I ever seen a ghost? Well, let me tell you….

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I’ve been to the Moss Beach Distillery three times. The third time must indeed be the charm, because that’s when I encountered at least one of the three ghosts said to haunt the building. The Blue Lady walks the cliffs or hangs out in the basement. By an unfortunate coincidence, the restrooms are located down there. A fairly broad stairway leads down from the dining room, passing below ground level, to the basement. I was halfway down those stairs when the air seemed to thicken around me, stopping me cold. I sensed a hostile awareness much like somebody at the bottom of the stairs glaring up at me. All the lights were on. No people were anywhere nearby. Speaking out loud, I announced my intention to go to the ladies’ room, then go back upstairs. I was not there to poke around. The thickness in the air eased up. I visited the ladies’ room, taking care not to look in the mirror. The second of the three ghosts, the piano player, likes to hide in there and spy on women diners. I came back up the stairs faster than I’d gone down, still feeling that hostile stare burning holes in my back.

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One night while Pat and I were in Hollywood on business we went to Graumann’s Chinese Theater. The box office is at street level, then you take an elevator down to the floor with the actual theaters. Pat was already at the ticket window ahead of me while I hurried down the hallway. To the left stood the bank of elevators. I saw a man and a woman get into the elevator going down, so I called, “Hold the car!” Pat and I reached the elevator at the same moment.

There was no one inside. Pat looked at me. I looked at her. I described the man. She nodded and described the woman. There was nowhere at all they could have gone other than into the elevator. That was so disturbing I find myself avoiding elevators ever since.

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Do I believe in ghosts?

I believe in life after death.

I believe that intense emotion leaves a lasting imprint on its surroundings.

I believe that some people will do anything to avoid giving up all the things you can do in and with a human body.

I believe in angels, therefore I also believe in fallen angels or demons, aka evil spirits.

I believe there’s a whole lot out there that we don’t know about, and don’t understand.

And so I write stories, trying to make sense of what I’ve seen and heard and maybe even touched. And I stay out of haunted houses.

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#atozblogchallenge F is for Finish It!


by Lillian Csernica on April 6, 2019

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I can sum up the secrets of writing success in two words: Finish it!

Everybody loves the beginning. Even when it’s difficult and you don’t know where it start. That first flush of creativity, the excitement over a new idea, can be addictive. So addictive, in fact, that when the shine of a new idea wears off and the doldrums of rewriting set in, people often abandon a project for something new.

That way lies disaster.

Most writers have several ideas sitting around in various stages of development. It’s what we do. Successful writers figure out which ideas have the most potential and invest time and effort in developing those projects. Agents won’t look at unfinished manuscripts. Editors don’t buy unfinished stories. Readers don’t read either of these because unfinished projects never get published.

Finish it.

When I wrote my first fantasy novel, I hit a rough patch about 3/4 of the way through. For three solid weeks I thought every word I wrote was worthless. Every single day I had to bully myself through my word quota. Eventually I got through it and completed the manuscript. When I got to that “worthless” section later during the editing process, it wasn’t really all that bad.

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When I wrote Ship of Dreams, my boys were both quite young. I wasn’t getting much sleep. There were lots of doctor appointments. When John was around 4 or 5 years old, we discovered he’s autistic. That was heartbreaking on top of all of Michael’s difficulties. Once again I hit that stage at the 3/4 mark where I couldn’t stand the story and wanted to give up. I also had a disk crash that cost me a chunk of work. Even with all this going on, and with the help of my agent, I completed the manuscript. That book sold.

Whatever you’re writing, finish it. Only when you get all the way to what you think is the ending, will you have a better idea of where the story should start. This is why they’re called roughdrafts. Just do it. Get it written. Throw everything at the page until you reach the end. Take a break. Step back. Let it cool. Then begin the edit and the rewrite.

Checkered, Chequered, FINISH

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#atozchallenge E is for Experience


by Lillian Csernica on April 5, 2019

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One of the first rules of writing is “Write what you know.” Draw on your life experiences to bring fresh, original detail to your stories. I agree with this. I also believe it’s very important to write about what we don’t know. I am not Japanese. I was not born into the Japanese cultural matrix. That means in order to write about Japan, I have had to do a whole lot of research as well as visiting both Yokohama and Kyoto.

As writers we are often painfully aware of how much we don’t know. This can cause a problem referred to as a “poverty mentality.” Most often this term is associated with how we think about money and finance. I first heard the term used by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones:

“People often begin writing from a poverty mentality. They are empty and they run to teachers and classes to learn about writing. We learn writing by doing it. That simple. We don’t learn by going outside ourselves to authorities we think know about it… Stay with your original mind and write from it.”(p30-31)

Sit down and make a list of all the experiences you’ve had that you like to talk about. Then list the ones you never talk about. And the ones you refuse to talk about. Don’t worry, nobody will see these lists but you. Just list the experiences in one or two sentences. You’re taking inventory to see what you have to work with. Here’s my list:

  • When I was nine years old, I came face to face with an armed robber in a sewer.
  • I helped some Greek Orthodox nuns go shopping for glasses at a mall in Fresno.
  • I took a battery-powered submarine ride around the coral reefs off Lahaina on Maui.
  • I once died in a car accident. I recovered, but I remember being dead.
  • At a steampunk convention, two identical twin female world class kendo masters taught me how to use a naginata.
  • I worked as a belly dancer from age 16 to age 18. Jobs included Father’s Day at a retirement home where only the men got to see my teacher and the rest of us.
  • When I was 18, I lived in Holland for two months one summer. I met a Dutch soldier at the disco one night. He walked me to the train station. Our goodnight kiss made me miss the last train.
  • I answer letters written to Santa Claus that come to the local post offices.
  • I’ve been through a Japanese haunted house. Much weirder than Western haunted houses.
  • I won a bottle of champagne in a storytelling contest after hours at the Northern Ren Faire.

Part of this is choosing the unusual experiences. Part of this is knowing how to make an experience unusual by the way you write about it. My friends know I have a talent for getting myself into strange circumstances.

Write the stories only you can tell. You will bring fresh wonder to the world!

"My creative writing professor suggested that I write about what I know...from my own experience!"

 

 

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#atozblogchallenge D is for Don’t


by Lillian Csernica on April 4, 2019

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Some of the lessons I’ve learned in my writing life have been firsthand experience, and some have come from observing the disasters other people have brought upon themselves. Since seven is widely considered a lucky number, I’ve distilled these “teaching moments” down to a list of seven Don’ts:

 

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Don’t burn bridges.

I have written three different regular columns for three different magazines. More than once what I wrote became rather controversial. One of my editors decided it would be a wise move to show my column to someone in the field before the column was published. I did not know about this at the time. What I did know is the way the editor insisted I make changes to that column, all of which were later revealed as being specific points complained about by the person to whom the editor showed it. Were these valid editorial objections? No, they weren’t. They had nothing to do with The Chicago Manual of Style or proper grammar. They had everything to do with private personal agendas. That editor sold me out. Once I found out what had really gone on behind the scenes, I was quite angry. Did I call the editor out? I did not.

Notice, please, that even though this happened twenty years ago, I’m still not naming names. Why? Because in the writing field, which really is a small world, it’s not smart to burn bridges. You just never know where that editor might turn up next. Sure enough, this particular editor went on to work at a magazine that had considerable importance in my chosen profession. Burning that bridge would have had serious repercussions.

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Don’t forget to say thank you.

Nobody owes you anything. If somebody does you a favor, show appreciation in an equivalent and appropriate way. I’m always passing on market information to my fellow writers. At least two of those people made their first sales based on info I sent their way. Writers ahead of me on the career food chain have introduced me to my heroes such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Silverberg. Once a successful writer gave me a roll of gold foil Autographed Copy stickers. Years later there came a day when I met Joseph Malik, a newly published writer, in the SFWA Suite at WorldCon and made sure he had some Autographed Copy stickers for his books. What goes around, comes around. Let’s all help each other.

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Don’t waste energy on self-doubt, anger, jealousy or fear.

None of those will get you where you want to go.

I live with grief, depression, disappointment, and constant fear. I can let them suck all the strength out of me. I can point to all the reasons in my life, valid reasons, for why I don’t get more writing done. Or I can write. Make the time, make the effort, get it done.

Take those emotions and use them to power your writing. Even if all you do is spew your negative emotions into your personal journal, writing is writing. As my dear teacher Andy Couturier says, “Keep the pen moving!”

Don’t be afraid to offend people or make them angry.

When I was little, my mother taught me not to talk about politics or religion. Mom said that was the surest way to start a fight. What do I write about now? My historical novels involve a certain amount of political intrigue. My fantasy often has some kind of religious content. A while back I appeared on a lot of religion panels at conventions. I would often end up defending Christianity, which really upsets some people. Those people took a serious dislike to me because of my beliefs, and that had some career repercussions. Oh well. This is still the land of the free and the home of the brave, at least for the time being. St. John Maximovich, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, once said, “Where there is no adversity, there is no victory.”

Just write. Tell your story. You are not responsible for how people choose to react. If you let fear control your voice, you’ll never say anything dangerous or exciting. Who wants to read safe, boring, middle-of-the-road writing?

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Don’t think you’ll remember it later.

You won’t. Write it down.

Don’t stop learning.

There is so much out there to know. Learning opens doors, and not just in terms of a college degree or a certificate or a license. Like most writers, I know a little about a lot of things. More than once, when I’ve met someone new, I’ve been able to find some common ground almost immediately thanks to knowing about food or music or folk art from their part of the world. And if I know nothing? I ask questions. I listen. I get excited, because I love to learn something new. Just the other day, at the local dollar store, I heard a man speaking a language I thought I recognized. Sure enough, he told me it was Arabic. When I mentioned how beautiful the Arabic script is, the man told me something I did not know. Arabic is read right to left. See? Always learning!

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Don’t stop writing.

I lost my first baby. He’d just started kicking. I was so happy. Called my parents, called the in-laws, told them all about it. Three days later, I ruptured early and that led to a miscarriage. I stopped writing in my personal journal. There was no way I could write down what I was feeling. I could not live through it all again.

Two or three years later, something must have happened to break up the emotional log jam inside my mind. I began writing in my plain spiral notebook with my plain black ballpoint pen. Then I wrote a pirate romance novel for fun and escapism and maybe even profit. I got an agent, who sold that novel. And so Ship of Dreams came into the world.

Keep writing. Every day. Meet your time, fill your quota. It adds up, and you will become a better writer.

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#atozchallenge C is for Collaboration


by Lillian Csernica on April 3, 2019

Collaboration is not for the faint of heart. The creative process is a strange and mysterious thing that does not lend itself to easy explanation. To harness your creative process to another person’s method of producing a story requires patience, communication, and a solid commitment to see it through to completion.

If you want to audition somebody for the role of collaborator, take a long road trip with that person. Being stuck in a car together for hours on end will give you a golden opportunity to discuss the project itself, along with finding out whether or not you can tolerate the other person’s quirks. Writers are quirky people.

I have had the good fortune to collaborate on separate projects with two very talented writers.

KEVIN ANDREW MURPHY

Kevin and I have known each other for a very long time, close to thirty years. We have written three stories together and sold every one.

Special Interests

Death for Death

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The Restless Armadillo

Kevin Andrew Murphy writes for many worlds, most notably George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. His story “Find the Lady” just received the Darrell Award for Best Midsouth Novella at MidSouthCon and he has other recent Wild Cards stories in Low Chicago, the expanded reissue of One-Eyed Jacks, and the upcoming (but out in Britain) Knaves Over Queens. He’s also just written “The Golden Cup” for Savage World’s Pantheon super hero game setting.
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PATRICIA H. MACEWEN

Pat and I have known each other since the night I drank the vodka tonic meant for her while hanging out with mutual friends at BayCon. Dragon’s Kiss is Pat’s novel. I was less a collaborator and more of a technical adviser. The hero of the book is based on my son Michael, who is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy and seizure disorder. We need more stories of people with special needs who fight the good fight, who continue to strive despite or because of their physical and cognitive limitations.

Pat MacEwen is an anthropologist. She sometimes works on bones from archaeological sites and does independent research on genocide, having worked on war crimes investigations for the International Criminal Tribunal, and done CSI work for a decade. Oddly enough, she was once a marine biologist at the Institute of Marine & Coastal Studies at USC. She has two novels out – Rough Magic, a forensic/urban fantasy, and Dragon’s Kiss, a YA fantasy about a crippled boy who finds he can talk to dragons but people? Not so much. She writes mystery, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Her work has appeared in a Year’s Best SF anthology. It has also been a finalist for the Sturgeon Award, and made the Tiptree Honors List. Her hobbies include exploring cathedrals, alien-building via nonhuman reproductive biology, and trawling through history books for the juicy bits.

 

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky plan a collaboration - 'War and Punishment'... it'll make us a bundle.

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